Indian politics is going through significant churning that has opened new opportunities. Stuck in their well-cemented positions, older players are unable to exploit the situation. However, new players like chief minister Arvind Kejriwal find it easier to experiment, learn and adapt. Did the latest Delhi elections and subsequent political events give us a glimpse into yet another shift in Kejriwal’s politics? What might be the reasons behind it? Should BJP be worried?
Kejriwal seems to be applying the method of “growth hacking” – popular in the internet marketing world where a company does rapid experimentation to find ways to grow fast – in politics. It has worked for him because AAP is a new venture and hardly consequential in most of the country.
Kejriwal started his political career from a neutral position of calling both BJP and Congress equally corrupt. This was his first experiment in politics. He maintained equidistance from both until he formed government in Delhi with the support of Congress. This second experiment was a major shift to the Left, that came with stronger opposition to BJP based on the familiar secular versus communal arguments. To gain votes and consolidate his position as a “secular” anti-BJP alternative, Kejriwal focussed on minority votes openly by meeting known communal elements in UP and Punjab. Nationalism was not even on his radar then.
The traditional “secular” political space that involves openly promoting minority interests – while ignoring or opposing issues dear to many Hindus – is crowded. Kejriwal lacks the organisational heft to muscle into the domains of the old guards. Obviously, the Left-liberal position put Kejriwal in a weaker situation compared to the older politicians running far bigger states. Further, this position did not weaken Prime Minister Narendra Modi and was unlikely to take Kejriwal far in his national ambitions.
The Delhi elections provided Kejriwal another opportunity to reposition himself for national politics. While Modi’s success was the result of a carefully crafted strategy, and he has tried to consolidate his position by emphasising development and nationalism, the actions and utterances of some of his party colleagues and cadre are derailing his plans.
To the detriment of Modi and BJP, Modi’s position in people’s mind is shifting towards the right irrespective of reality. Modi’s actions concerning Article 370, triple talaq, and Ram mandir can be viewed as secular and nationalist. They can also be viewed with suspicion of being motivated by communalism. The strong Hindutvavadi cadre has ensured that the latter view prevails among large sections of the electorate. And this is where the opportunity lies that Kejriwal is trying to exploit now.
Recognising the drift in Modi’s position, Kejriwal has attempted to position himself as a development-oriented practising Hindu – a Hanuman bhakt – who is proud of his religion yet completely secular and a nationalist. In the elections, he avoided issues such as the Shaheen Bagh dharna that could create doubts about his new position.
His focus on development and his faith copied elements of Modi’s 2014 general election strategy. His recent utterances on China and his support to the Modi government on this issue, his views on Atmanirbhar Bharat and positive politics are aligned with his desired new position. Essentially, he is doing a Modi to Modi!
Kejriwal is ambitious and aspires to be PM someday. For that, he must appeal not only to the liberal Hindu voters but also to the minorities. This experiment of Kejriwal can create a perception where BJP looks closer to a strong Hindutva position than it is, and the so-called secular parties look closer to minorities than they are. It is the first serious attempt to delink the Left from liberal – a hyphenation that has always existed in independent India. And for him, the advantages could be huge and sustainable.
What can go wrong? Kejriwal has succeeded through experimentation so far because his party is young, small and entrepreneurial. However, as AAP becomes a national party, this strength can become a weakness. A strong position requires consistency of behaviour and expressions, and a disciplined cadre. Kejriwal must sharpen his strategy and implement it with precision and consistency to strengthen his position. His entire party must be disciplined in implementing the strategy. This is Kejriwal’s second chance to enter national politics. Will he do it right this time? Let us see.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.